Donald Trump and Republican allies vow to 'make China pay' for coronavirus, but Beijing's sovereign immunity makes threats ring hollow

On Monday, Donald Trump claimed China could have stopped the novel coronavirus before it swept the globe and said his administration was conducting 'serious investigations' into what happened.

Deven Kanal April 30, 2020 13:41:53 IST
Donald Trump and Republican allies vow to 'make China pay' for coronavirus, but Beijing's sovereign immunity makes threats ring hollow

As a private citizen, Donald Trump was known as a fairly litigious individual.  Is it little wonder then that he continues to have the same approach while in office?

On Monday, Trump claimed China could have stopped the novel coronavirus before it swept the globe and said his administration was conducting "serious investigations" into what happened.

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File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

"We're doing very serious investigations ... We are not happy with China," he said at a White House news conference. "There are a lot of ways you can hold them accountable," he said, hinting that Washington could possibly seek damages from Beijing.

This is hardly the first time Trump, or someone from his administration, has gone after China. On the same day as Trump sounded his warning to Beijing, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro accused China of sending low-quality and even counterfeit coronavirus antibody testing kits to the United States and of "profiteering" from the pandemic.

And the previous week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ominously warned China that the United States is working with other countries to make sure they understand that coronavirus originated in Wuhan. Pompeo further added, "We need to hold accountable the parties responsible for the deaths here in the United States and the enormous economic costs that have been posted on the US."

Lindsey Graham, a close White House ally and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has called for cancelling the US debt with China, slapping a “pandemic tariff” on Chinese goods and imposing unspecified sanctions on Chinese officials.

“China needs to pay,” Graham told Fox News earlier this week, accusing the government in Beijing of “gross negligence and willful deception” in its handling of the outbreak.

States sue China

Last Thursday, Missouri became the first US state to sue the Chinese government over the coronavirus pandemic followed quickly by Mississippi. Missouri, represented by its Attorney-General Eric Schmitt, accused the communist nation of suppressing information, arresting whistleblowers and denying the contagious nature of coronavirus that led to deaths and job losses in the state.

" COVID-19 has done irreparable damage to countries across the globe, causing sickness, death, economic disruption, and human suffering. In Missouri, the impact of the virus is very real - thousands have been infected and many have died, families have been separated from dying loved ones, small businesses are shuttering their doors, and those living paycheck to paycheck are struggling to put food on their table," Schmitt said, as per the CBS report. "The Chinese government lied to the world about the danger and contagious nature of COVID-19 , silenced whistleblowers, and did little to stop the spread of the disease. They must be held accountable for their actions."

As per a report in The Independent, six of the COVID-19 lawsuits against China stem from the United States. As per The Independent report, Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a staunch ally of the president, has introduced the Justice for Victims of coronavirus Act to strip China of sovereign immunity for prosecution, and create a task force in the state department to investigate Beijing’s handling of the disease and secure compensation from the Chinese government.

Sovereign immunity shields Beijing

But experts say it is unlikely that any such effort would succeed. Foreign governments enjoy immunity in American courts under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a 1976 statute which codified the principle that sovereign states may not be sued in courts of other countries.

Several legal experts told the Washington Post that immunity is just one of several legal hurdles that the plaintiffs will likely face.

"US law — following international law — generally grants foreign states immunity," Jacques deLisle director of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute told the newspaper. "Exceptions exist for commercial activities with direct effects in the United States, wrongful acts (not just harmful consequences) occurring in the United States, and State-sponsored terrorism. But courts aren’t likely to see the accusations against China as falling within these narrow categories."

"Amid deteriorating US-China relations, such a move risks retaliatory immunity-stripping as well as further damage to the battered US reputation for respecting international law," deLisle said.

With inputs from agencies

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